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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

W.E.B. Du Bois

At the turn of the twentieth century, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the most outspoken civil rights activist in America, committed himself to a style of political leadership which emphasized that, in order for African Americans to survive the inordinate stress and cruelty of racial discrimination, they had to make a “...determined attempt at self-development, self-realization, in spite of environing discouragement and prejudice.” The style called upon African Americans to seek full exercise of civil rights in the United States through militant protest and agitation.

Du Bois’s posture met with little popularity, for it was at the time that the nation had witnessed the undermining of the “Reconstruction Amendments”—which had given blacks the legal prerogatives of the vote, access to public facilities and services, and equal rights under the law—by the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Fergusson or the “separate but equal” doctrine. Rayford W. Logan, a noted historian, called the ensuing period of disfranchisement the “nadir” and betrayal of African American citizenship in the United States. Du Bois was undaunted in his conviction that, despite Plessy v. Fergusson, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were documents of entitlement and that the struggle of African Americans was a struggle for securing basic human and civil rights for all Americans. Hence, for Du Bois, the turn-of-the-century nadir signaled social and political conditions for blacks which made protest an absolute necessity.

Du Bois’s political idealism was a product of his childhood observations of and participation in the civic activities of his home town and of his formal education in the 19th-century disciplines of history and sociology, both of which held firm to a belief in human progress and the perfectibility of man in society. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, Du Bois grew up in a typical New England small-town environment, where social and economic activities were reinforced by strong traditions in “primary democracy”: all of its citizens had a right to be heard. The people of Great Barrington considered their community to be one with a moral purpose; thus, assuming social responsibility was an integral part of civic life. Having grown up in such an environment, Du Bois had little direct experience with the social, political, and economic exclusion of blacks before he went south to attend Fisk University in 1885.

After graduating from Fisk University, Du Bois went to Harvard, 1888 to 1892, where he completed a second baccalaureate degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in history. He studied philosophy with William James, George Santayana, and Josiah Royce, whose thoughts on individualism, community, pragmatism, and the use of ideas to promote social change influenced Du Bois’s thinking throughout his long career as an activist and writer. His advanced study led to his earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard and the distinction of having his dissertation, The Suppression of the Slave Trade in the United States of America, published as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies in 1896.

The new social science held that one should seek the “truth” of the human history through an examination of a range of historical documents: the Congressional Record, the census, newspapers, private papers, and so forth. Study of such primary sources would allow the scholar to write a comprehensive view of any historical era or issue. During the initial period of his career, Du Bois utilized the new social science methodology as a researcher and teacher at Wilberforce University (1894–96), the University of Pennsylvania (1897), and Atlanta University (1897–1910). Between 1896 and 1905, he conducted studies of the urbanization of blacks in the North (The Philadelphia Negro) and the social organization of blacks in the rural South (The Atlanta University Publications). By 1900, however, having declared that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” he realized that his scholarly work reached a limited audience. He began experimenting with the literary forms in search of containers, as it were, for a kind of literature which portrayed the African American’s social and cultural distinctiveness in ways the social sciences did not. Many of his experimental works—essays, poems, short stories, plays, dramatic sketches, and so on—were published in two magazines which he edited, the Moon Illustrated Weekly (1905) and the Horizon (1907–10). The poem “The Song of the Smoke,” for example, was first published in the Horizon (February 1907); and, in many respects, its theme is characteristic of Du Bois’s early work: an assertion of a positive disposition toward blackness for its beauty, its creativity and its service to mankind.

Du Bois also realized as early as 1900 that organized collective action by black people needed an institutional structure in order to be effective. In 1905, he was the principal founder of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights protest organization, in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory posture of accommodating racial discrimination. The organization called for direct action against racial discrimination through protest, through the use of the courts, and through education of the American people. Four years later, he was a principal organizer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Its mission was identical to that of the Niagara Movement but its membership included both blacks and whites. From 1910 to 1934, as the NAACP Director of Publicity and Research and editor of its magazine (the Crisis), he combined his experimentation in literature, his understanding of American culture, and the rhetoric of protest. He was, for nearly a quarter century, the undisputed intellectual leader of a new generation of African Americans.

In 1934, Du Bois was fired from his post with the NAACP because he advocated use of segregation as a strategy for binding blacks into a cohesive group during the worst of the Depression years. Other officials of the organization felt such a strategy was against the NAACP’s basic mission: seeking an integrated society. While Du Bois’s strategy is little understood, nevertheless it remains the primary reason cited for his departure from the civil rights organization which he helped to found and to which he gave direction.

Although Du Bois returned to the NAACP as Director of Special Research from 1944 to 1948, 1934 marked the end of his influence in the organization and in the affairs of African American letters. Already a world leader by 1900, Du Bois dedicated his post-1934 years almost exclusively to world affairs. For almost two decades, to his death, he was identified as a sympathizer with world peace movements. In 1963, he became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in August of the same year.

Frederick Woodard
University of Iowa

In the Heath Anthology
The Song of the Smoke (1907)
The Souls of Black Folk
      Chapter I: "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" (1903)
      Chapter III: "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" (1903)
      Chapter XIV: "Of the Sorrow Songs" (1903)

Other Works
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America (1896)
Atlanta University Studies on the American Negro (19 volumes) (1897 - 1915)
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899)
John Brown (1909)
The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911)
The Star of Ethiopia (1913)
The Negro (1916)
Darkwater (1920)
The Gift of the Negro (1924)
Dark Princess: Voices from Within the Veil (1928)
Black Reconstruction (1935)
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940)
Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945)
The World and Africa (1947)
The Black Flame--A Trilogy: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961) (1957 - 1961)

Cultural Objects
TEXT fileIs Booker T Washington Crazy?
Sound fileSorrow Songs/Spirituals

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Atlantic Monthly, 1965
An interview conducted by Ralph McGill shortly before Du Bois's death.

Perspectives in American Literature
Primary works and selected bibliography including books and articles.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Virtual University
Ohio State graduate student site devoted to many aspects of Du Bois studies.

W.E.B. Du Bois Resources
Numerous links to online projects, texts, and more.

W.E.B. Dubois: Sociologist & African-American Protest Leader
Biographical sketch and links to additional Internet resources.

Secondary Sources

William L. Andrews, Critical Essays on W.E.B. DuBois, 1985

Frances L. Broderick, W.E.B. DuBois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis, 1959

Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois, 1976